The Story of the Senate

Quick note: Robert Caro deserves all the credit for the ideas in this post. Originally written for friends, it’s a distillation of ideas at the beginning of Master of the Senate, the third volume in Caro’s biography of President Lyndon B. Johnson. 

Americans should know the story of the senate. Writing in the late 1700s, the Framers of the Constitution made the House dynamic and the Senate stable.

But why?

Here’s the backstory: The founders of America were scared of tyranny and wary of executive authority. As they drafted the constitution and dreamed up America’s laws to-be, they gave Congress power to collect taxes, coin money, declare wars, raise and support Armies, maintain a Navy, and borrow money on the credit of the United States. Rather than giving the President power to declare war like European monarchs, the Framers of the Constitution handed that power to Congress. 

The powers of Congress didn’t end there.  Congress was independent of the President and as a check on the President’s authority. If need be, Congress could remove the President through impeachment or override the President’s vetoes of their acts. 

Among Congress, the powers were split between the House of Representatives and the Senate. As Robert Caro wrote: “While the House of Representatives was given the ‘sole power of impeachment,’ the Senate was given the ‘sole power to try all Impeachments…’ The House could accuse; only the Senate could judge, only the Senate [could] convict. The power to approve presidential appointments was given to the Senate alone; a President could nominate and appoint ambassadors, Supreme Court justices, and all other officers of the United States, but only ‘by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate.’” 

And of course, the world looked nothing like it does today. The states were fragmented by culture. Word spread no faster than the gallop of a horse. The South’s leading spokesperson, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, a former Vice President of the United States who served under John Quincy Adams and continued under Andrew Jackson, proposed a step that would go a long way towards shattering the union. Here’s how Robert Caro recounted it: “any state unwilling to abide by a law enacted by the national government could nullify its borders.” Senators complained that their individual sovereignty, their rights and their freedoms, were being trampled by federal unification.

America hadn’t colonized the continent from east to west. The frontier was wide open, and senators didn’t know where to take the country. As Caro wrote: “the price of public lands in the west: the West wanted the price kept low to attract settlers from the East and encourage development; the East wanted the price kept high so its people would stay home, and continue to provide cheap labor for Northern factories.”

The Constitution demanded collaboration between the President and the Senate. We learned that in school, but here’s where it gets interesting, especially with the wave of rising “populism” around the world today. 

The Framers of the Constitution weren’t just scared of a single person aggregating power. They were scared of too much democracy. The Aristocrats who penned the constitution feared and adored the people. They saw them a gift and a curse. At once, the aristocracy gave the people power as they withheld it. 

As Robert Caro wrote: “The Framers of Constitution feared the people’s power because they were, many of them, members of what in America constituted to an aristocracy, and aristocracy of the educated, the well-born, and the well-to-do, and they mis-trusted those who were not educated or well-born or well-to-do.” Above all else, the Aristocrats wanted to protect their property rights against those who didn’t own any property.

When it came to democracy, the Framers followed the Goldilocks principle: not too little, not too much. .

Here’s Caro: “The Framers wanted to check and restrain not only the people’s rulers, but the people; they wanted to erect what [James] Madison called ‘a necessary sense’ against the majority will.’ To create such a fence, they decided that the Congress would have not one house but two, and that while the lower house would be designed to reflect the popular will, that would not be the purpose of the upper house.”

The House was the popular branch. The Senate, the deliberate one. 

The Senate’s architecture proved to be a careful balancing act. It heard the wisdom of crowds as it protected against the madness of crowds. As James Madison said: “first to protect people against their rulers, and protect the people against the transient impressions into which they themselves might be led… The use of the Senate is to consist in its proceeding with more coolness, with more system, and with more wisdom, than the popular branch.”

The constitution ensured that the Senate could protect the people against themselves, and simultaneously ensured that the Framers armored the Senate against the people. Should America be too Democratic, and grant too much power to the House, Madison worried that government would have a propensity “to yield to the impulse of sudden and violent passions, and to be seduced by factitious leaders into intemperate and pernicious resolutions.”

At the time, little states feared that the more populous states would gain a commercial advantage and earn outsized influence over presidential and national policies. Small states wanted an equal voice in Congress. In what history books call “The Great Compromise,” the Framers agreed that “while representation in the House would be by population, in the Senate it would be by states; as a result of that provision, a majority of the people could not pass a law; a majority of the states was required as well.” 

The first Senate of the United States consisted of twenty-six men. Two men for each of the 13 colonies. To guard against the winds of passionate lunacy, Senators would not be elected by the people. One Senator said: “The people should have as little to do as may be about the government… They lack information and are constantly liable to be misled.” 

Another said: “The evils we experience flow from an excess of democracy.” Before their election, Senators passed through a filter, distilled by the will of the people. As Caro wrote: “Senators would be elected not by the people but by the legislatures of their respective states — a drastic filtration since in 1787 the franchise was so narrow that the legislatures themselves were elected by only a small percentage of the citizenry.”

Senate provisions against the madness of the populous didn’t end there. The Senate would be firm and independent. Long term lengths would arm Senators against the mood of the day.

The Senate, the more deliberate branch, would move with prudence and predictability. It would control the House, the democratic branch with short term lengths, where optinions would change quickly. As Madison wrote: “What good is the rule of law if “no man… can guess what the [law] will be tomorrow?” 

Members of the House had to be 25 years of age. The Senate, 30. Senators made treaties and managed foreign affairs, so the Framers added extra years to the acceptable age minimum. As Caro wrote: “And around the Senate as a whole there would be an additional, even stronger, layer of armor. Elections for Senators would be held every two years, but only for a third of the Senators. The other two-thirds would not be required to submit their record to the voters at that time… This last piece of armor made the Senate a “stable institution indeed.” 

Senators would serve a six-year term — longer than Presidents. Members of the House would serve for two-years. Presidents, four. The Senate would operate by a staggered-term principle. Only one-third of the total membership would be up for re-election every two years. As one historian wrote: “It is therefore literally not possible for the voters ever to get at anything approaching a majority of the members of the Institution at any one time. “

So there it was: Dynamism for the House. Stability for the Senate. 


I Want to Hear From You

I’d love to hear your feedback. Send me your thoughts, criticisms, and ideas in a direct message on Twitter. When you do, please don’t nitpick. Constructive feedback will lead to a more productive dialogue that’ll be better for both of us.